Setting the Example: How parents can foster good sportsmanship

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Matt Krumrie (Special for USA Wrestling)

Dinner time at the Fitzpatrick household is not unlike that of many American families. The family of five from Mahtomedi, Minnesota includes three boys ages 16, 13 and 11, all of whom wrestle. Topics of discussion include school, family and, of course, wrestling. But for parents Brian and Heidi, those wrestling-related conversations also focus on something far bigger, something that will have an impact on their kids both on and off the mat: sportsmanship.

"This is actually a subject we take very seriously at our house and with our boys," says Brian Fitzpatrick. "Sportsmanship is a topic of constant discussion, whether our boys are on the way to a competition, after they've finished a competition, while at the dinner table, or when watching others in any sport compete.”

The best way to create an environment that fosters the importance of good sportsmanship is to discuss it, says Steve Baysinger, Executive Director of the Blue Valley Recreation Commission (BVRC), in Overland Park, Kansas. That's why the BVRC mandated all parents who have kids involved in their program complete the youth sports league's Champion of Character course, focused on good sportsmanship.

"So often, athletes quit a sport because of a bad experience with a coach or a parent," says Baysinger. But his insistence on sportsmanship training makes a difference, he says. "Often, people who were upset that we required their attendance thank us for the program and impact it has made."

Promoting the values of sportsmanship will also help newcomers enjoy the sport of wrestling, says Chris McGowan of Sioux City, Iowa. McGowan has two boys, ages 13 and 11, who wrestle. 

"Sportsmanship is critical to the future growth of wrestling," says McGowan, a former college wrestler, youth coach, and member of the Board of Directors for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Far too many young wrestlers and their families leave our sport prematurely because they see parents carrying on inappropriately and demonstrating poor sportsmanship, which newcomers to our sport then logically assume is condoned behavior,” he explains. 

That’s something Solomon Alexander, Director of the St. Louis Sports Foundation, covers regularly in his Sportsmanship Blog, where he addresses the "good, bad and the ugly topics in sports with the intention of making the sports experience better for all.”

"Parents have the biggest influence over kids," says Alexander. "When it's not fun, kids quit. And when that happens all those other social ills—obesity, getting in trouble, that's when those things happen.”

Baysinger’s favorite part of the Champions of Character course comes when one of the instructors talks about the approach his father took with him as a young athlete.
“After each game, when he met up with his dad, whether he had a great game or a bad game, his dad would put his arm around his should and say ‘Jim, I just love watching you play basketball, baseball, or whatever sport he was in at that time.’” Baysinger recalls.That subtle approach goes a long way, he notes: “The memories of good sportsmanship far outlast memories of wins and losses.”

Parents can work together to lead the way in promoting good sportsmanship, says Fitzpatrick, who offers these tips, gained from years of experience:

• Do not critique your child, especially after a tough outing. Instead, offer support and remind them that setbacks create opportunities.

• Actions speak louder than words. Teach good body language. A slouching wrestler after a loss sends the wrong signal to others.

• After a hard match—win or lose—a good sport will cheer on his or her teammates.

• Parents and wrestlers should make a point of thanking the coaches, team managers, scorekeepers, refs, and janitors. Many people are involved in an event—recognize this.

• Remind your child that the goal is to always improve and have fun, not one or the other. Sports, especially wrestling, are just a microcosm of life. Enjoy the experience, appreciate the opportunity.

• Talk to other parents on the team and offer sincere encouragementabout their child and hope this will encourage them to light someone else's candle.

“Offer praise and encouragement not just for your child, but go out of your way to encourage other wrestlers as well,” says Fitzpatrick. “Kids and parents notice this and it will rub off on them as they grow and learn how to be good teammates and fans.”